When Death is by Trauma

The death of a loved one can be traumatic but there are circumstances such as suicide, homicide, accidents and natural or man-made disasters which make the stress of grief even greater.  Your normal coping abilities are overloaded and your grief reactions can be severe.

Emotional Experiences

With traumatic and unexpected deaths, your sense of reality is destroyed and everything feels out of control.  Disbelief can overwhelm and paralyze you as you juggle coping with cause of death and the death of your loved one.  As you learn as much as you can about what happened, the many unanswered questions can lead to numbness, pain and confusion.  The shock which initially protected you gives away to frustration, fear or anger.

The world no longer feels safe to you.  Your basic assumption about the predictable, controllable world that is fair has just been shaken.  You may think you are going crazy, you’re not.  When your reality has been shattered, your sense of security shaken and innocence destroyed, it is natural to be afraid.

Your anger may be so intense that it is frightening.  Anger can turn to rage as you wrestle with the unfairness and a sense of injustice.  Unanswered questions may seem to multiply.  You may feel cheated, betrayed or helpless.  You may be questioning your faith and find yourself angry with God.  The “if only” and “I should have” thoughts can attack at any time.  You may even feel guilty because you couldn’t help your loved one and the realization that there is nothing you can do to change what has happened can lead to despair and helplessness.

Your frustration may finally burst into anger as you confront the medical, legal and moral issues that surround trauma.  Don’t be surprised if your grief resurfaces or intensifies as you wind your way through the judicial system and realize there is no justice that will bring your loved one back.

You are being bombarded by a wide range of emotional, physical, psychological, social and spiritual trauma as your body reacts automatically to chemical and hormonal changes that occur as a result of your grief.  Your body is adjusting to a new reality.  In addition to the normal stresses in grief, trauma usually results in one or more reactions:

Hyperactivity or agitation. You may experience a need to pace or move around a lot, and not be able to pinpoint why you are restless.

Frozen apathy or indifference. You may feel paralyzed and unable to express emotion or communicate with others.  Many people would describe this as shock which only lasts a short time.  As the reality of the death sets in, you will react in other ways.

Nightmares. This includes very detailed dreams that involve the senses such as sight, smell or sound and may include night sweats and waking up with an acute sense of anxiety.

Hypersensitivity to sound. You may be oversensitive to noise.  You may become startled at sudden noises or disturbances.  It may take your body several minutes to calm down when you hear a certain pitch or an abrupt or loud sound.

Flashbacks. Flashbacks are sensory reactions where you may smell, hear, taste or even have a vivid visual recall of the incident over and over.

Fearful anticipation. You may be overwhelmed with an intense fear of terror for no specific reason.  You may want to surround yourself with people or run away and hide.

Difficulty making decisions. Your concentration may be poor and simple things like deciding what to have for lunch or what to wear can be overwhelming.

Amnesia for the event. Your mind can sometimes block out events which are too horrible to recall as a way to protect you.  Don’t be alarmed if this happens.  In time, you will remember.

What Do I Do Now?

  • Take care of yourself physically.  If you find that you cannot sleep, try to rest.  Putting your feet up and sitting quietly can relieve your stress.  If you find yourself wanting to sleep to avoid the pain, force yourself to walk even if it is for short intervals or do some simple stretching exercises as you sit in your recliner.
  • Try taking deep breaths.  Just three deep breaths can do a lot to change the flow of hormones and reduce your overall anxiety level.
  • Eat healthy.  Avoid caffeine and complex carbohydrates.  Eat protein snacks such as cheese, peanuts and peanut butter and crackers.  Drink at least 6 glasses of water daily.  Eat less more often.
  • Be realistic and patient in your expectations of yourself and others.  Grief takes time.
  • Don’t try to lessen the pain with drugs or alcohol.  They only provide temporary relief and can intensify the grief later.
  • Don’t focus on rumors.  Get your questions answered by reliable sources.
  • Assert yourself.  Ask for what you need.  If you don’t have the energy to do that, get some to be your advocate.
  • Find ways to release emotions in safe, non-destructive ways.  Scream in the shower or into a pillow.  Pound a hammer, knead bread dough or hit tennis balls.
  • Focus on only one worry or issue at a time to combat feelings of being overwhelmed.
  • Share your thoughts and feelings with others.  Keep a journal.  Find a support group.
  • Remember life requires effort on your part.  Work at lifting depression.
  • Don’t be afraid of questioning your faith.  Talk to your clergy.  Remember that it is through questioning your faith, that it becomes stronger.  In searching for answers, you will find hope.
  • Be kind to yourself.  Learn to forgive yourself.
  • Find ways to memorialize your loved one. Plant a tree, create a scholarship fund, or organize a memory walk.

Seek Help

Don’t be afraid or ashamed to seek help.  It is a sign of strength that you can reach out to take care of yourself and your family.  Ask your funeral director, clergy or health care professional for referrals.

Your loved one has died and it is very easy to be consumed by the details and trauma of the death but don’t let that keep you from remembering your loved one’s life.  When your heart feels heavy with grief, lighten the pain with memories of the life and love you shared.  Don’t let the trauma of the event rob you of the love of your relationship.  Grief takes a long time, but love lasts forever.